Minds for the Future

June 25, 2007 | CUNY Matters Columns

When I reflect on the current state of education in our country today, I see an alarming trend: I see fewer students enrolling and succeeding in the disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). We all need to try to understand this development, because our common future depends on our ability to reverse it.

I believe that too few students are enticed at an early enough age by the beauties of physical and mathematical phenomena. Too many are “scared off” by the accurate perception that these disciplines are difficult, that they require serious work and effort. We are not sufficiently engaging America’s young people in these studies and preparing them for the advanced learning and accomplishment in these fields that we as a nation require for our future economic health and security.

In recent years, other countries have been far more successful in inculcating a commitment to this type of work than we have. Perhaps you saw Thomas Friedman’s recent editorial in The New York Times. In that column, Mr. Friedman described his experience attending this year’s Commencement at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, which is, of course, one of this country’s great science and engineering schools. “For a moment,” he wrote, “as the foreign names kept coming…I thought that the entire class of doctoral students in physics were going to be Chinese…” He warned that “we can’t keep being stupid about these things. You can’t have a world where foreign-born students dominate your science graduate schools, research labs, journal publications and can now more easily than ever go back to their home countries to start companies–without it eventually impacting our standard of living…”

A few days later, another Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof, chimed in with some first-hand observations of his own, based in part on a visit to his wife’s ancestral village in China. He concluded that, in a way, we need to repeat some history: “[L]et’s do as we did after the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik in 1957: raise our own education standards to meet the competition.”

So we simply must get more of our students hooked on these fields. Early.

To that end, I would like to suggest that we all think about some new work from the eminent psychologist Howard Gardner. In his new book Five Minds for the Future, Dr. Gardner poses a big question: What minds should we be cultivating in our young people, what kinds of minds will they need if they (and we, as a society) “are to thrive in the world during the eras to come”?

I am struck by his formulation of five mind “types”: the disciplined mind, the synthesizing mind, the creating mind, the respectful mind, and the ethical mind. Of course, all these minds need cultivating; I certainly hope that we’re doing exactly that work at CUNY. But I must say that when I think of the discouraging trend I’ve just outlined, two of Dr. Gardner’s “minds” assume added importance: the disciplined mind, and the creating one.

Why the disciplined mind? As Dr. Gardner makes clear in his book, a disciplined mind learns the ways of thinking that we associate with the major disciplines (he singles out mathematics, science, history, and “at least one art form”).

And a disciplined mind, Dr. Gardner suggests, is an active and creative one. “Once one has understood well a particular play, a particular war, a particular physical or biological or managerial concept, the appetite has been whetted for additional and deeper understanding, and for clear-cut performances in which one’s understanding can be demonstrated to others and to oneself. Indeed, the genuine understander is unlikely in the future to accept only superficial understandings. Rather, having eaten from the tree of understanding, he or she is likely to return there repeatedly for ever more satisfying intellectual nourishment.”

This vital intellectual curiosity establishes a bridge. Dr. Gardner’s “creating mind” is one that seeks new work, new standards, new questions, new answers. It’s one that views an outlying point or result not as something to dismiss or excuse or ignore, but as something to investigate. It’s a mind like that of Albert Einstein, whose success as a theorist, as Walter Isaacson has observed in a new biography, “came not from the brute strength of his mental processing power but from his imagination and creativity. He could construct complex equations, but more important, he knew that math is the language nature uses to describe her wonders.”

We need young Americans to “have it all”: They need the disciplinary knowledge associated with mathematics and the sciences, and they need the imagination and creativity too often missing from rote learning. It’s a lot to ask of those responsible for teaching them, but it simply must be done.